Like many people who have gone through a traumatic health scare, cancer survivors face a paradox.
On one hand, they live with a daily fear that cancer will return or that their futures are now uncertain. On the other hand, many find that cancer has made them appreciate life in both its grand concept and everyday normality all the more.
Many survivors express their gratitude for “the little things.” One survivor told me, “I never thought about the feel of wet hair on my neck following a shower. However, while undergoing treatments it was one of the feelings I missed most. Now that I have completed treatment and my hair has grown back, I try and pay attention to that feeling every time I take a shower.”
I was fascinated by the word “try,” because it highlighted the reality that even for those who have faced death, appreciating the here and now can be a challenge. We all say that we’re going to savor every second, but remembering the minutes is difficult. Many survivors can attest to the fact that immediately following their return to everyday life, they could honestly tell you that they appreciated the everyday more. However, most often report that it is a feeling that unfortunately begins to dissipate with time.
I spoke with a parent of a survivor who related that while with each year the very intense memories begin to fade, sadly the lessons learned fade as well. How can we hold on to that feeling? How can each of us bring the feeling of appreciating the here and now, living in the moment, into our daily lives?
We live life in the present. But so often, the present is overshadowed with our worrying about the future and ruminating over the past. How often do we dream about our next vacation, only to find that we spend the days away from work worrying about what we will find when we return? Do we ever take the time to stop and really live in the moment?
Psychologists at Harvard University set out to prove that living in the moment contributes greatly to one’s level of happiness. They discovered that 50 percent of people don’t live in the moment, and that people spend nearly half their time (46.7%) thinking about something other than what they are actually doing, and that this distraction can actually make us less happy. How often when we commute to work we realize that we are at our exit or train stop, but we don’t really remember the ones we’ve passed?
Psychologist Matthew A. Killingsworth, lead author of the Harvard study wrote:
Human beings have this unique ability to focus on other things that aren’t happening right now. That allows them to reflect on the past and learn from it; it allows them to anticipate and plan for the future; and it allows them to imagine things that might never occur. At the same time, it seems that human beings often use this ability in ways that are not productive and furthermore can be destructive to our happiness.
In other words, focus on what you’re doing now and you may find your life more satisfying.
While there is clear benefit to living in the moment, how do we do start, and how to do we sustain it?
Living in the moment, also called mindfulness, is a state of active, open, intentional attention on the present. Being in the moment can allow us to appreciate the everyday, it can allow us to appreciate the small things, without focusing solely on the mistakes of the past, or the unknown of the future. I would like to propose six steps to help each of us live more in the moment.
- Be aware of the world around you. Look around. Try and find something beautiful around you. Noticing small things can make even an ordinary routine day a little more beautiful and brighter. Be thankful for these little things.
- Focus on what you are doing. Pay attention to your all your senses: attend to what you hear, see, smell. Slow down. Savor the feeling. It may make change how you approach even the mundane chores, from giving the kids a bath to walking home after exiting the train.
- Smile. There is scientific evidence that the expressions you make with your face can actually influence how you feel. Smile when you talk and others around you will feel happier too.
- Commit random, spontaneous acts of kindness. Better the world around you. Look around and find ways throughout the day to do something good for others. Donate a dollar in the grocery store. Pick up a piece of litter from the ground. Pay someone a compliment. It’s all about being aware of what’s around you, and responding to your environment. These small acts can have a great impact, but unless you are truly living in the present, you won’t even notice the opportunities that are always out there.
- Minimize activities that dull your awareness of the moment. Pay attention to what you are doing that generally allows your mind to wander. Are you watching television? Surfing the Internet? Daydreaming and getting lost in a good book isn’t bad, but it’s not living in the moment. Be active, do something that keeps you in the present, not something that allows you to be passive. Zone in, not out.
- Be thankful for what is. We all wish certain parts of our lives were different, but rather than focus on what we don’t have, focus on what we do have. There is a great quote, “What if you woke up today with only the things you thanked G-d for yesterday?” Think about all the things you have in your life you can be thankful for. This will bring you back to the present, rather than thinking of what could have been or what you hope will be.
Created by survivors for survivors, R-Mission is the first program designed to meet the needs of Jewish young adults and adults who have completed treatment for cancer and their families. Through activities and an online community, R-Mission endeavors to help survivors adjust to post-treatment life and explore the totality of their experience within the context of their Jewish identity. For more information or to participate, visit www.r-mission.org.
Cheryl Greenberger, Ph.D., is the Director of Clinical & Family Services for Chai Lifeline, the international children’s health support network, and Director of R-Mission, a new Chai Lifeline program for cancer survivors and their families.